Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the original Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Revenge-ElevenDarkTalesYoko Ogawa shares the same elegant, pared-down aesthetic of Kazuo Ishiguro and/or Akira Yoshimura.  Like them, she exerts remarkable control over her prose narrative.  And, like them, the fact that something significant is occurring is not always immediately apparent.

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales provides eleven intimate encounters with love, loss, desire and, yes, revenge.  The violence committed by Ogawa’s characters is particularly chilling, often presented as an afterthought.  The situations into which the reader is pulled are eerily familiar,  like in dreams.  The stories are imbued with a sense of artistry.

Afternoon at the Bakery begins with a woman waiting at the counter of an empty bakery to purchase strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday.  An elderly woman wanders in and sits beside her.  They trade small-talk, and in the course of their conversation it is revealed – very matter of factly –  that the birthday boy is dead.  He suffocated (perhaps years ago?) playing in an abandoned refrigerator.  The elderly woman sympathizes and then she leaves, promising to send back the baker if she should see her.  The mother continues to wait, seemingly with unlimited patience.  Eventually she notices the baker in the kitchen, clutching a phone and crying.  She wonders at the cause of the girl’s tears but decides not to interrupt.

People passed by the shop window – young couples, old men, tourists, a policeman on patrol – but no one seemed interested in the bakery.  The woman turned to look out at the square, and ran her fingers through her wavy white hair.  Whenever she moved in her seat, she gave off an odd smell; the scent of medicinal herbs and overripe fruit mingled with the vinyl of her apron.  It reminded me of when I was a child, and the smell of the little greenhouse in the garden where my father used to raise orchids.  I was strictly forbidden to open the door; but once, without permission, I did.  The scent of orchids was not at all disagreeable, and this pleasant association made me like the old woman.

On first reading, that may sound a little too simplistic of a plot.  The author is using a classic bait and switch scenario – pull a reader into a seemingly average, everyday situation and then draw back the veil.  She keeps the action and revelations balanced on the edge of what is possible.  Ogawa performs this trick over-and-over-again throughout the collection, yet the novelty never diminishes.  And even when things begin to feel unsteady, she uses the (authentic) emotions of her eleven narrators to steady us.

Every story is told through the first person, introducing a new storyteller who brings a new set of emotions, responses and perspective to events.  So one woman’s confessor becomes another man’s creepy uncle.  These tales are linked together by a delicate cord of tenuous relationships.  As the book progresses the number of connections grows and the cord becomes a net.

Part of the fascination of Revenge is derived from the joint discoveries of what the next connection will be and where it will occur.  A woman who wears her heart outside her chest, a surgeon’s jealous lover, a black-sheep uncle, a college student’s patroness, that crazy neighbor you made the mistake of talking to once… Ogawa binds the macabre and the mundane with brilliant results.  She and her translator Stephen Snyder make it look easy – allowing the action to move at its own, languid, pace.  Together they are carefully constructing prose environments, emotional tableaux, frozen in time like the scene in a Vermeer painting.

Or like Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill.  It’s been a favorite of mine since college.  The artist  has thrown together an assortment of mostly common, everyday items – except for the skull.  And it is that one disparate element which sets the tone and defines the viewers response.  Claesz was a 17th century “Haarlem painter who gave extraordinary presence to familiar things”.   It’s the gift given to every true artist:  that ability to draw back the veil and show the rest of us what is not always immediately apparent.

Publisher:  Picador, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 312 67446 5

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All Fires The Fire and Other Stories by Julio Cortázar (Suzanne Jill Levine, translator)

My interest in Julio Cortázar was piqued when I discovered his novel Hopscotch.  At the front of it is a Table of Instructions.  The reader can choose to read one of two ways:  the first by progressing in the normal, linear fashion.  The second is to follow a key of numbers, corresponding to the chapter headings, which sends the reader jumping back and forth through the book.  Fascinating, right?  I’m looking forward to tackling it, but am holding off until I have a substantial chunk of time to spend flipping pages.

Meanwhile, there are his short stories.  And I highly recommend the short stories of Julio Cortázar. They remind me of Quim Monzó, who I have to believe is familiar with Cortázar’s writings but whose own work – while it contains similar games and puzzles – doesn’t have the same goals.  The stories in All Fires The Fire are warm and the characters are treated with real tenderness.  For Cortazar, at least here, it’s not solely about the construction of a narrative.

The Southern Thruway occurs in the center of an epic traffic jam on a highway outside of Paris.  The stranded drivers and passengers form communities and pool resources as the hours become weeks.  Life, death and love continue within a microcosm.  This is a strange story, requiring the reader to withhold disbelief (seriously, why didn’t they just start walking?).  It’s also my favorite, despite (or because of?)  the absurd premise on which it is based.

In Meeting Cortázar pays tribute to his Argentine history – building a beautiful (and convincing) story.  He recounts the 1956 landing of Granma in Cuba and the arduous trek of the revolutionaries through the swamps and to the Sierra Maestra Mountain ranges.  This was Fidel Castro’s return to Cuba with his brother Raul and friend Che Guevara – and the beginnings of the Guerrilla War against Batista.  The story is narrated by Che, himself, but Cortázar doesn’t reveal this until the end.  In fact, to obscure identities, Fidel is called “…Luis (whose name wasn’t Luis, but we had sworn not to remember our names until that day arrived)…”  It’s a brilliant piece of writing.  I actually started the story before reading Guevara’s wife’s memoir, and for reasons I can’t remember put the book down.  It wasn’t until afterwards, after reading the memoir and returning to All Fires The Fire, that I connected fact and fiction.  I’ve read criticism that states this story also functions as an allegory, representing Cortázar’s faith in the Cuban revolution (Understanding Julio Cortázar by Peter Standish) – but I don’t have the background to speak to any of that.  I can only say that it’s a beautiful story about one man’s idealism and a friendship based on shared convictions.

Nurse Cora is the story that seems most reminiscent of Hopscotch.  A straightforward plot about a teenage boy in the hospital, his crush on his pretty young nurse and his dependence on an overbearing mother (who refers to her 15-year old son as “the baby”) is transformed into an extraordinary prose experiment.  Cortázar uses a series of revolving first person narrators, one picking up  mid-sentence from the other without any noticeable attempt at separation.  Yet, somehow, the reader never loses track of who is speaking.

Then I went in to keep the baby company, he was reading his magazines and already knew they were going to operate on him the next day.  As if it were the end of the world, the poor thing looks at me so.  I’m not going to die, Mama, come on, will you.  They took Cacho’s appendix out in the hospital and in six days he was ready to play soccer again.  Go home and don’t worry, I’m fine, I have everything I need.  Yes, Mama, yes, ten minutes asking me if it hurts me here or hurts me there, a good thing she has to take care of my sister at home, she finally left and I could finish the serial I’d started last night.

The afternoon nurse’s name is Nurse Cora…

All Fires The Fire contains eight stories in all.  Every one a masterpiece in my opinion.  Nothing Julio Cortázar writes could ever be described as common or colloquial.  The situations he creates border on the bizarre, yet each contains a recognizable truth, a visible link to a reality the reader can understand.  All of this makes him incredibly exciting to read.  An author whose books I guarantee you will recommend to friends, family, colleagues, unsuspecting strangers you meet on the street.  I know, I know… I probably sound a little over-zealous.  Can I offer you some Cortázar flavored Kool-Aid?

Publisher:  Pantheon Books, New York (1988)
ISBN:  0 394 75358 5  (This edition is no longer listed in the Pantheon Books catalog.)

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The King in the Tree, 3 Novellas by Steven Millhauser

I prefer Steven Millhauser’s short stories to his novels. Confession time:  I never finished Martin Dressler or Edwin Mullhouse.  The style was too 19th century for me; it reminded me too much of Bartleby the Scrivener.  But Millhauser’s short stories are an entirely different matter.  Imagine the love child of Herman Melville and Italo Calvino: their offspring’s prose would have the aerie quality of Calvino’s fables, anchored to earth by Melville’s practicalilty.   There is still a 19th century flavor to the writing, but it’s balanced nicely – like in A.S. Byatt’s or Kazuo Ishiguro –  the plot isn’t confined by period, but skims lightly through it.

The three novellas that make up The King in the Tree are completely seperate.  Revenge starts off with the reader joining a cheerful, middle-aged woman giving a house tour.  What begins as happy reminisces of her marriage and harmless small talk takes on a sinister tone as we move deeper into the home.  Millhauser begins in the Front Hall.  New information is revealed as we are taken from room to room: Downstairs Bath; Kitchen; Dining Room and Stairs.  The secrets become more menacing when we reach the hidden, more private, parts of the house: The Bedroom, the Attic & the Basement.  It is a beautifully constructed tale, a journey into the dark places, that in some ways reminded me of Orpheus’s journey through the Underworld.

An Adventure of Don Juan puts the famous lover on an English country estate, enjoying all his host has to offer.  Fleeing what he has come to see as the tawdriness of his life in Venice, he discovers that relationships play out pretty much the same regardless of the landscape.  The plot of this story isn’t extraordinary.  Rather, it acts as a vehicle for extraordinarily lovely prose and a platform from which to make observations on the human condition.

Sometimes it seemed to Don Juan that there were two lives: a public, proper, entirely uninteresting life witnessed by everyone, and a secret life of bliss and torment that had nothing to do with the other life.  In one life he sat sipping a cup of green tea, among friends, in the pavilion of an English garden, while in the other he was lying rapturously beside Georgiana on the floor of a hut in the middle of an impenetrable forest at the bottom of a hidden valley surrounded by impassable mountains.  Mary Hood smiled over a cup of tea, but in her eyes was a night-world where she and Don Juan wandered hand in hand forever through the rooms of an abandoned country house filled with beds and sofas.  And what of Georgiana, pointing at a bird singing on a branch – it is one of yours, Augustus? – or urging Mary to eat a biscuit? – she too must be the mistress and goddess of a secret world where, unknown to Juan, she lead her other life, the one she concealed from him behind her cool smile and quiet gaze…

Again and again Millhauser revisits the themes of jealousy, revenge, attraction and infidelity (not necessarily in that order, of course).  Each novella presents the reader with some variation of the eternal triangle, and in the title story he stays true to form. Who doesn’t love revisiting an oldie but goody?  The love triangle of Tristan, Iseult and poor, neglected King Mark is rife with self-inflicted melodrama.  Millhauser’s version is narrated by Thomas of Cromwell (a nice reference back to an original author of the romance) who is both confidant and objective observer in all that unfolds.  Thomas willingly inserts himself into the action, experiencing the rewards and the emotional fallout of his choices.  While it adds nothing particularly new to the mythology, The King in the Tree is a poignant variation on the familiar legend.

By all reports, Steven Millhauser is as much a scholar as he is a storyteller.  The King in the Tree supports that opinion, as do all his other collections: Enchanted Night, Little Kingdoms (my favorite) and The Barnum Museum.  These are beautiful stories, beautifully told.  They are fun in that they contain little treasures throughout – references for people in love with literature and the history of literature.  Best of all, they are perfectly suited for the time between Summer and Fall… seamlessly transitioning us from light reading to the heavier, prize-seeking tomes that come out every Fall.

Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, New York.  (2003)
ISBN:  0 375 41540 8

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Things We Didn’t See Coming

New authors love short stories… and Steve Amsterdam is no exception.  His debut collection follows the life of a boy who grows to adulthood through the course of 9 episodic stories.  The setting is an uncertain dystopian future.

The stories in Things We Didn’t See Coming are all narrated in the first person (like everything else between two covers these days).  Amsterdam is at his best in the first two and the last.  “What We Know Now” is about a young boy being rushed to his grandparents’ country home in preparation for a Y2K event.  The second story “The Theft That Got Me Here” has the same boy, now a juvenile delinquent, fleeing the city with his grandparents on a Bonnie & Clyde type adventure.  The final, in my mind the best, has our hero detour his end-of-life tour group for a last visit to his father (“Best Medicine”). These three stories are each complete and self-contained.  The characters have clear motivations.  The individual plots proceed to logical conclusions. And Amsterdam leaves just the right amount unsaid, while still providing resolution at the end.  The writing, particularly in “Best Medicine”, is lovely and evocative.

The other six stories are much less successful in my opinion, making promises they fail to delivery on.  Think of each story as a flash.  In the first story the central character is about 12.  In the next flash he is in his mid- to late teens.  Next his 20’s.  By the last story he’s 40 years old.  Between each story/flash are huge gaps in the narrative.  There’s a LOT of missing information… most story lines are left dangling.  And because, as before mentioned,  Amsterdam is a writer who doesn’t spell everything out (something I usually like) the result is that most of the stories in the collection feel incomplete.  It’s frustrating.

As for the writing style, it is strictly no frills – like generic packaging in a supermarket – with rare moments of brightness.  All the stories are written in the kind of clean, straightforward prose that often works in an author’s favor, but (for the most part) doesn’t here.  The overall effect is rmarkedly lackluster.

In my experience an author must choose whether to construct a complicated plot or focus on language.  The greats do both.  Amsterdam does neither.   Even what I believe to be the most original thing about the book, its approach to an apocalyptic future, is recycled in that it has been done better by someone else.  Signs, my favorite M. Night Shyamalan film, is about an alien invasion from the perspective of an ordinary family.  Their knowledge of what is occurring is limited and they’re only goal is to survive.   These people are not heroes saving the world,  yet they still battle the aliens (and their own personal demons) within a perfectly constructed microcosm.

Amsterdam’s hero grows up to be, not Mad Max, but a petty thief and eventually… wait for it…a government employee.  The most action packed confrontation in Things We Didn’t See Coming happens when a dying vagrant wanders into the hero’s camp and taunts him – while he sits in a tree to avoid infection.  While this perspective may be unorthodox, it just doesn’t make for much dramatic tension.  To keep a reader’s interest something exciting has to happen eventually.  Even the unexplained apocalypse of the story becomes nothing more than a background against which this character’s uneventful life plays out.

My final verdict?  I can’t completely bring myself to  dismiss the Things We Didn’t See Coming.  Because…and here’s the rub…  what if Amsterdam, Shyamalan, and even T.S. Eliot, have the right of it?  That (unless some zombies show up) the end of the world will be remarkably mundane?  Tedious, even.  Scrounging for food and water, avoiding disease and infection.  Hustling and stealing and lying in order to survive.  It’d be a let down, but rings true.  Ultimately, I’m ambiguous –  unsure if Things We Didn’t See Coming chooses the best way to tell that particular story.  Amsterdam has succeeded in making the end of the world banal.  And while he may someday have the satisfaction of being proven right, it isn’t an adventure  I see most readers  enthusiastically signing on for.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Publisher:  New York, Pantheon Books (2009)
ISBN:  978 0 307 37850 7 

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Fragile Things: Short Fictions & Wonders by Neil Gaiman (Audio Book)

Neil Gaiman made comic books cool before…well…. before comic books were cool.  Three years after DC Published The Watchmen, Gaiman’s The Sandman came out on the Vertigo imprint, and helped pull the medium out of adolescence and into the realm of serious literature.  (It was also one of the first comic books to attract a loyal female readership).  The 75 book series was different from the standard superhero and mutant fare.   It immersed its readers in fantasy, mythology & literary history, – overlapping an archetypal past onto the modern world.   William Shakespeare, Orpheus, Lucifer, and Cain & Abel were all recurring characters.  It was in many ways the introduction of the graphic novel to the “literary” world.

So it was no surprise that when Gaiman moved away from comic books and into writing novels that he stayed with the fantasy genre.  Good Omens (co-authored with Terry Pratchett), Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Anansi Boyes , and of course Coraline, are all wonderful and I can’t recommend them enough.  But on a 5 hour trip to Pittsburgh I decided to purchase Fragile Things: Short Fictions & Wonders from Audible.com.  I saw the collection of short stories, poems and prose as a return to Gaiman’s comic book roots; where each issue was  an installment in an overall story arc.  While I don’t regret my selection, I do have mixed feelings about it.

At 10 hours and 51 minutes long, read by the author, I didn’t finish the whole download during the round trip . I could have, but frankly it would have been a bit much.  These stories were much bloodier and heavier than I expected.  (There was also quite a bit of sex…  Not a bad thing – just unexpected).   They are on the whole haunting.  Days after reading one it will linger in your mind.  Frequently, even though you’re pretty sure you can read between the lines or predict what happens after the story ends – you realize that you can never really be sure, can you?  I mean, he never actually tells you… does he?  All this adds up to an unsettling collection with too little humor, and what humor there is being pitch black.  Gaiman creates a mood wonderfully, but in this case he has used his powers for evil.  After each sitting I turned off my ipod feeling rather bleak.

Don’t misunderstand, I enjoyed Fragile Things.  A few stories are quite funny (I only wish there had been more).  I particularly liked one with a nice twist about an author’s struggle to write a terrible, and unintentionally hilarious, Gothic novel entitled Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire (also the title of the story). Another favorite was about a pair of boys crashing a party and attempting to pick-up girls, which has an interesting take on the Men are From Mars & Women from Venus phenomena – quite literally.   Two more stories which gave me chills (in a good,  ghost-story-told-around-the-campfire-with-a flashlight-under-your-face kind of way)  were about young boys meeting eerie playmates, featured the same red door knocker, and were both told using  frame stories. (Probably not a coincidence).  I’d strongly recommend skipping the story entitled Feeders & Eaters altogether if you have a delicate stomach.

These stories are probably more palatable read in a book, one at a time with long breaks between sittings… but I highly recommend the audiobook.  Gaiman’s readings are inspired – they transport you into the story.   His vocal expression may be what makes the experience so unsettling.  (He does the voices!)   For those of us who always loved Gaiman’s writing, its nice to know that he is a true storyteller in every sense.

Do NOT make the mistake of thinking that just because it feels like being read a bedtime story, these stories are suitable for young ears.  And I wouldn’t recommend them before bed.  I can’t imagine anything creepier than driving into Pittsburgh at 11PM listening to The Flints of Memory Lane, but hearing it right before attempting to go to sleep probably would make the cut.

Is it BookSexy?  Will it help to make you a more interesting person?  Well, yes… and no.  There is beautiful writing in Fragile Things, and beautiful stories.  You’ll find alot to talk about.  As a collection, though, it gets to be disturbing.   I suppose the same can be said about taxidermy.  One stuffed dead animal in a room can be an interesting conversation piece.  Twelve or fifteen is the Addams Family Mansion.

My advice:  It’s best to err on the side of moderation.  Parcel out these stories.  They’ll be easier to enjoy and the reading will last that much longer.

And should you ever come to a door with a scarlet door knocker in the shape of a demon’s face?…  Don’t knock.